Kids Need to be Savvy about Net Predators

June 16, 2002

HOLLY AUER - News Staff Reporter; The Buffalo News Inc.


Ten years ago, when parents told their kids not to talk to strangers, they meant shifty-eyed men in shopping malls or windowless vans. But today's children encounter strangers every day in their own homes -- through anonymous messages on their computer screens.

Sometimes the messages are from other kids looking for Internet friends with similar hobbies or athletic interests. But law enforcement officials say that often the messages are from pedophiles posing as children, hoping to lure kids into a face-to-face meeting. "Child abuse is not a geographic crime anymore," said Paul Moskal, spokesman for the FBI in Buffalo. "The predator could live next door, in the next state or around the world. The Internet is one big avenue of opportunity for bad people."

Six Buffalo-based FBI agents work full time to flush out Internet predators. The local bureau's Innocent Images program -- which hunts for purveyors of child pornography as well as people soliciting children for sex over the Internet -- is one of only 18 nationally.

A recent University of New Hampshire study found that one in five U.S. children have received a sexual solicitation over the Internet within the past year.

Area middle and high school students say they get such solicitations so often -- either through mass-produced e-mails or America Online Instant Messages from strangers -- that it doesn't faze them anymore. Mostly they just delete them and move on.

Their good sense doesn't calm parents' jangled nerves. Many say that keeping their children safe from Internet predators is now as high a priority as making them wear their seat belts in the car.

"Like anything else -- drugs, alcohol, sex -- you need to keep open communication," said Phyllis Carriere, a Lake View mother of two teenagers. "I trust that they'll tell me anything weird that comes up."

Cloak of anonymity

Late last month, a Connecticut 13-year-old was killed after a rendezvous with a man she had met on the Internet. Christina Long apparently lived a double life, frequently chatting with men on the Internet and sometimes meeting them for sex.

Those dalliances ended in a Danbury mall parking lot, where she had sex with 25-year-old Saul Dos Reis, who police say strangled her and left her body in a ravine.

Christina repeatedly sought out and toyed with danger before it caught up with her, but local authorities say predators can find even the most innocent child Internet users.

They cull identifying details -- age, gender, hobbies and location -- from online profiles and message boards and begin to bombard their intended victim with e-mails and Instant Messages.

Of the 525 abused children seen at Buffalo's Child Advocacy Center for interviews and forensic medical exams each year, less than 5 percent are victimized by people they met on the Internet.

But as the number of computer and Net users grows, so too will the number of predators lurking behind the Internet's cloak of anonymity, the FBI's Moskal said.

Who is most at risk of falling into their traps?

Children on the cusp of puberty, who are just beginning to understand their sexuality. Without parental guidance, they may be confused -- and tempted -- by messages soliciting sex, experts said.

Moskal reported that Internet molesters seduce children with kindness, sympathy and gifts -- the same tools a genuine admirer would employ. They may offer advice and help with homework, creating the illusion of trust.

Sometimes preteens and teens, like Christina Long, set out to find affection from an older man, perhaps to substitute for an absent father, said Ed Suk, director of the Child Advocacy Center. By the time the child meets him -- sometimes hundreds of miles from home -- she's not surprised to find out that he's 35 or 40. It was what she wanted all along.

But that doesn't mean it's safe.

Most parents don't expect that their 13-year-old will jump on a bus to meet a stranger in another state. But the planning that Net predators go through to secure those meetings is chilling, and they make the invitation difficult to resist: All the child has to do is show up at the station and pick up the tickets.

"To them, it's well worth whatever small amount of money they have to pay to lure your kid to where they are," Suk said.

Parents don't know

The technological divide between parents and children poses additional dangers. Most grade-school students today began using the Internet years ago, but their parents may have only limited online literacy.

Studies have revealed a huge gap between what parents believe their kids are doing on the Internet and what is actually going on. In a 2000 National School Boards Association study, more than 50 percent of children reported corresponding with strangers online; only 30 percent of parents said they knew their kids were talking to strangers.

Experts agree that setting rules and guidelines for Internet use is vital. If trust is an issue, software such as Net Nanny can help parents track where their children travel on the Internet, but it can't list each person with whom they correspond.

"The answer is education -- not locking them up," said Jim Teicher, executive director of the national CyberSmart School Program, which teaches kindergartners through eighth-graders about responsible Internet use. "It's just like when your kid rides a bike. You hope and pray that you've given them the tools to be safe in the road."

Textbook publisher MacMillan McGraw-Hill launched the CyberSmart! curriculum last winter in an effort to teach children and parents about online dangers. The free lessons are tailored to different grade levels, beginning with worksheets for kindergartners on how to protect their identity online and how to recognize commercial content.

"We tell little kids that using the Internet is just like when you go to the zoo or the park -- that you should always be with an adult," Teicher said.

Leave profile blank

Many teens who use AOL post a profile for their screen name, including their hobbies, friends and inside jokes. The profiles are frequently filled with favorite song lyrics and odes to teenage boyfriends and girlfriends, and they seem harmless.

But Suk cautions that even the smallest scrap of identifying information could be used to locate children, so it's better to leave the profile area blank.

"It's not OK for your kid to fill out all that info," he said. "Every single other member of AOL has access to it, and it's all information that pedophiles will enjoy having."

AOL did not return phone calls on the issue.

Catherine Moran, 16, doesn't have an AOL profile, but creepy characters find her online anyway.

Her mother, Kelly, gets messages from strangers with seedy motives, too, so she has advised her daughter to always click those IMs closed.

And there's one firm Internet ground rule that Catherine says she has no trouble abiding by: no going into chat rooms.

Despite the apparent risks, Catherine has friends who meet their Internet pals face to face, without parental supervision. She's not interested in that now, but admits that she might eventually try to scope out people with similar interests or find people who will attend the same college as her.

Experts say that's probably fine, as long as her mom comes along on the first meeting. Suk said getting to know children's Internet friends -- even if they never meet in person -- is just the 21st century version of the parental refrain, "Whom are you going with? Who's going to be there?"

"The Internet requires a degree of savvy behavior," Teicher said. "It's the same kind of things you want your child to have for when they're alone in the physical world without you."


© The Buffalo News Inc.